Lost and Found: Orson Welles’ TOO MUCH JOHNSON (1938)

Let’s start with the bad news first:  The discovery of Orson Welles’s “lost” film Too Much Johnson (1938) is not the discovery of an early feature film masterpiece directed by the wunderkind of cinema before he went off to make Citizen Kane (1941).  Orson Welles designed Too Much Johnson as a series of cinematic prologues to an ambitious, multimedia, Mercury Theater stage production of William Gillette’s play that was ultimately streamlined and simplified to the point that the footage was excluded.  Because the film footage was quickly disregarded, the 66 minutes recently discovered in Italy looks more like a collection of raw footage than an edited sequence of events (only about 30 minutes of the footage was edited by Welles before he nixed the idea).

That’s the bad news.  The good news is we have a portrait of how the young filmmaker was initially approaching the medium.  Essentially, Too Much Johnson is a sketchbook of Welles’ creative impulses and its substance should be gauged less by its status as an “unfiltered” narrative feature and more by it being a meta-document for film historians.

Welles’ initial goal was to use the prologues – a completely fabricated “prequel” to the play that Welles constructed – to be projected between acts.  What’s unique about his approach to the footage is that he’s making a silent slapstick homage to the work of Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  Keep in mind, Welles was shooting this roughly ten years after the advent of sound and roughly twenty years after Sennett’s Keystone Comedies were prevalent.  The influence of these silent comedians is felt not only in the subject matter – it is a farce that is constructed around tomcat Joseph Cotten getting chased down by his lover’s jealous husband – but the visual patterns as well.  The static camera and long-take aesthetic of the chase sequences allow the film to become the live-action equivalent of a cartoon.


However, the film also showcases preoccupations of Welles that run the waterfront of his career.  For instance, when the chase sequence involves a labyrinth of wooden crates and baskets piled up to the sky, it’s easy to see the visual parallels to the final sequence in Citizen Kane in which the newspaper publisher’s collection of artifacts is surveyed by newspaper men, who miss the meaning of Rosebud that has eluded them for the entire film amongst the mess.  Similarly, the labyrinth of crates in Too Much Johnson also serves as an environment that just barely obscures a search for information that easily remains within the grasp of the investigator. Cotten is hunted through the labyrinth by the jealous husband, who is only a few feet away from him at all times yet seems incapable of looking in the right direction at the right time.  (If I’m “reading too much” into Too Much Johnson, it’s because the print is silent, lacks intertitles, and because I only have a vague idea as to what the play is about.)

Second, even before he teamed up with cinematographer Gregg Toland (TMJ was shot by documentarian Harry Dunham), Welles was attempting to experiment with deep focus.  In one sequence of the film in which a family rides around a pier in an automobile, waiting to board a boat to Cuba, Welles and Dunham frame the family in the foreground, the boat in the middle ground, and the landscape in the background, keeping all planes of action in focus for the duration of the brief sequence.  While not nearly as baroque as the deep-focus compositions that mark Kane and Touch of Evil, we can see the seeds of the technique that would define Welles’s aesthetic just a few years later.

Too Much Johnson also showcases Welles’s dynamic staging of action.  When Cotten is chased up a fire escape by the husband via a parallel fire escape (Cotten’s physicality in Too Much Johnson deserves its own article, as he puts himself in some dangerous situations for his friend and director.  Specifically, he finds himself climbing the levels of a rooftop by carrying a wooden ladder up with him!), the camera tilts up the side of the building, through a meshwork of clothes and power lines.  The shot seem to serve as an encapsulation of the convoluted forty minute chase sequence and also predicts the ascend through the backstage of Susan Alexander’s doomed stage show.  In other shots, Welles plays with perspective, as he frames the chase between rooftops, allowing the emergence of characters from outside the frame to shock and surprise, often to the viewer’s amusement.

Finally, Too Much Johnson exhibits the piecemeal economy of Welles’ European productions (specifically 1955’s Mr. Arkadin and 1962’s The Trial) in his use of close ups and eye line matches to buffer out disjunctions in time and space.  Specifically, when Welles’ career went rogue, the filmmaker repeatedly needed to construct scenes outside the rules of the continuity system because he might not have access to the necessary actors/actresses/settings on the same day (let alone the same year).  Thus, many of Welles’ European films exhibit the fragmentation of cinematic space and time.  Obviously, all films involve this whenever there is a cut, however, the viewer is normally “led” to fill in the gaps by master and establishing shots.  Welles didn’t always have the ability to shoot those pivotal shots, so he needed to get creative so that he could prompt the viewer to use his/her imagination a bit more.

Last week’s screening of Too Much Johnson here in Los Angeles, kicked off the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Welles retrospective — and it also included a Q&A with the venerable Norman Lloyd,  representatives responsible for the film’s discovery and restoration, a commentary during the shooting that contextualized the footage (subjects included filming locations and a description of the play’s plot), three minutes of “behind the scenes” footage that the Pacific Film Archive has in its collection, and a 40 minute “construction” of the raw footage. (Basically, it gave the audience an idea of what the edited prologues may have looked like).  I note this because I think this footage and these resources would be a tremendous asset to the field of Cinema and Media Studies, so I hope a wider release is on the horizon.

About Drew Morton 39 Articles
Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication. While his students call him “Doctor” or “Dr. Drew,” he is unable to help people suffering from medical ailments (he can only prescribe films) or from sexual dysfunction (although he can be quick with a double entendre). His film criticism has appeared in Cultural Transmogrifier, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Pajiba.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.